Disabled students getting support in college

Technology, awareness helping more Iowans succeed at state schools

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IOWA CITY — University of Iowa graduate student Natalie Berto is sometimes so weak she can’t get out of bed, or fatigue causes blurred vision.

Berto doesn’t “look disabled,” she said, but a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease she was diagnosed with at 17, called myasthenia gravis, impacts her studies as a second-year master’s student in social work.

She’s one of more than 500 UI students this fall who receive accommodations and support through the student disability services office.

Berto, a 24-year-old Ottumwa native, often gets extended time for exams or shifts her schedule to morning events, when she has more energy. And this semester, the university converted a large textbook into digital form for Berto, so she wouldn’t have to haul the heavy book around campus.

“The big thing for me is attendance, because you can only miss so many classes, and that’s something I take really seriously,” she said. “I have to be able to talk to my professors and say ‘Hey, it’s not because I’ve been out drinking or just partied a little too hard, it’s because literally I’m too weak and I can’t get out of bed.’?”

Knowing she has advocates in the disability services office is important, Berto said.

“I think ultimately everyone wants you to succeed,” she said.

Growing numbers

Enrollment of students with disabilities has grown more than 18 percent since 2000 at Iowa’s three regent universities, according to this fall’s enrollment report to the state Board of Regents. The UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa serve 1,607 students with disabilities this fall, up from 1,359 students in 2000. Students this fall receive nearly 5,100 services and accommodations to help them with classes, including books on tape, note-takers and extended times and special locations for tests.

“I think that more and more students with disabilities are feeling more confident in their ability to succeed at the postsecondary level, and I also think that they’re becoming more educated and attuned to their rights to accommodations,” said Steve Moats, ISU’s director of student disability resources.

The overall growth in enrollment at the three universities is likely driven partly by the fact that K-12 schools are doing a consistently good job now in identifying those students earlier, said Mark Harris, director of UI student disability services. The majority of students have gotten a diagnosis and were receiving accommodations before coming to college, he said.

Providing accommodations to students with disabilities is mandated by federal law. The college level does differ from K-12 education, where the responsibility to identify those students lies with the schools. In college, students must self-identify and request services.

The UI, ISU and UNI follow similar processes: a student seeks help from disability services, or perhaps is referred there, then completes a request and provides documentation of a disability from a licensed professional. Once approved, each student is assigned a disability adviser. The universities aim to empower students to be their own advocates, Harris said, but the counselors are there to help and meet with students as needed.

UI student Justin Wittrock, of Algona, said he was amazed at the difference when he went from high school to undergrad at Iowa State. Wittrock, 25, will earn a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from the UI this spring, but after high school he attended ISU and earned a meteorology degree there in 2010.

Wittrock, who is deaf, said he and his parents often had to fight for accommodations in junior high and high school in smaller, rural school districts. He found the university experience at ISU and Iowa to be much different, making it easier to get court reporters or sign language interpreters to assist him in class.

“I was used to having a struggle,” Wittrock said. “It makes things a lot easier, to make it more focused on academics for me. You’re trying to do as well as you can, and learn what you need to learn.”

Special accommodations for exams are among the most common services for students with disabilities at the three schools, officials said. ISU’s exam accommodation center, specifically for students with disabilities, saw a 47 percent increase in the number of exams administered from 2010-11 to 2011-12, Moats said. That’s likely partly because of more awareness of the center by instructors and students, and also more time pressures on faculty, he said.

Having an assigned note taker in class also is very common, and programs that do speech-to-text conversion for students also are highly used, officials said.

Technology is making things easier and gives students more independence, said Ashley Brickley, UNI coordinator of student disability services. Years ago, if a student wanted a textbook in audio format, they would come into the office and read the book aloud into a recording device so they would have it on tape, she said. Now, texts are available digitally or can be easily scanned, and software programs read them aloud for students, who can skip to certain chapters or points in the book, Brickley said.

“That’s a wonderful thing about assistive technology,” she said

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